June 09, 2006

Soccer: Here We Go Again

Oh boy, it's World Cup time again! Time for Americans to pull their mildewed soccer jerseys out of the backs of the closets where they've resided for four years. Time for millions of people to discuss left mids, strikers and keepers as if they know what the hell they're talking about. Time for insurgents and guerrilla fighters all over the world to lay down their guns for a month and gather around the TVs, even if they don't have electricity. Yes, the World Cup is not only the most important sporting event in the history of mankind, it's a catalyst for world peace!

Oh, spare me.

I don't really feel the need to recount the long list of things I can't stand about soccer. (Although I have to ask: Is there a firing squad, guns drawn, ready to execute any player who shoots the ball in the direction of the actual goal?) I'm well-acquainted with the channel-change buttons on my remote, and the World Cup hoopla on TV in this country isn't that difficult to avoid. It's not like the Super Bowl, where you'd have to move to Montana and hide in Ted Kaczynski's shack for a month to avoid the absurdly overblown hype. Soccer hype gets worse every World Cup, but in the end it's not that much worse than, say, the WNBA.

What drives me crazy are the soccer snobs.

You know the people I'm talking about. The ones who show up to work in soccer jerseys. The ones who, even though they're fourth- or fifth-generation Americans, insist on rooting for Italy or England or Germany. (Sometimes they'll claim it's a shout-out to their heritage, even though these same people usually root for Team USA during the Olympics.) The ones who actually follow the MLS in non-Cup years (unless they consider MLS beneath them and follow the European and South American leagues exclusively). The ones who don't roll their eyes when mentioning names like FC Dallas or Real Salt Lake. The ones who berate journalists for making picayune mistakes when referencing profoundly dumb MLS team names. The ones who seem to regard the preponderance of 1-0, 0-0, and 2-1 scores in soccer as a virtue.

There are no sports snobs more annoying than soccer snobs.

Football snobs (I suppose I should specify "American football," for the sake of the soccer snobs reading this) don't exist, for several reasons. For one thing, it's hard to associate the word "snob" with something as violent and gladatorial as football. (Then again, Ernest Hemingway could reasonably been described as a "bullfighting snob.") More to the point, there is no such thing as a football snob for the same reason there is no such thing as an American Idol snob. Because there is no God, football is the king of American sports. A true snob would never be caught dead enjoying something so widely popular among the Philistines. (Some might argue that Sports Illustrated's Dr. Z is a football snob, but I would call him a football purist, which is another matter.)

There are basketball snobs, and they can be pretty annoying, particularly the ones who argue that not liking basketball marks you as a racist. But there aren't too many of them (Bill Simmons claims that there are only 20 real basketball fans still alive), and the ones who play the race card are usually less into basketball than they are into complaining about Whitey. Many of them cry racism whenever American sports fans boo a surly prima donna and/or borderline criminal who happens to be black (see also: Bonds, Barry and Lewis, Ray).

Hockey fans, in my experience, are not inclined to snobbery. There are plenty of hockey diehards, sure, but they're content to just enjoy the games and not care what everyone else thinks. They don't mind letting their freak flag fly, but it's with an attitude of cheerful indifference to the rest of the world, as opposed to defiance. They're more cultists than snobs. A typical hockey crowd is sort of like a midnight screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, minus the cross-dressing (usually). Also, it's hard to be snobbish about an event in which many of the key players are missing teeth.

Now, there are a lot of baseball snobs. I'm one of them. And I'm the first to admit that we're pretty damn annoying. We're a lot like classical-music snobs; while fans of other sports are watching mere entertainment, we're experiencing something sublime, an art form, something deep and special which offers insight into the human condition. (Thomas Boswell's essays "How Life Imitates the World Series" and "Why Time Begins On Opening Day" are archetypal examples of baseball snobbery.) Baseball snobs tend to think themselves intellectually, and perhaps morally, a cut above fans of other sports. (Just ask first-rate baseball snob George Will. Or re-read my insufferably snooty paragraph about football above.) Many harbor a secret wish to be transported back to the early 20th century. (I am a prime example.) And they tend to employ a plethora of superfluous polysyllabic words.

Guilty as charged. But soccer snobs are worse. Soccer snobs may be slightly less boring to listen to, but they make up for it by being even more arrogant, which is no mean feat. Sure, a baseball snob may look at, say, a die-hard football fan as a mouth-breathing cretin. But a soccer snob thinks of non-soccer fans as xenophobic mouth-breathing cretins. The soccer fan's attitude toward non-fans reminds me a lot of the Bush administration's attitude to those opposed to the Dubai ports deal: "Shut up, hicks." If you hate soccer, it's because you're a provincial American slob with your head up your ass. You can't, apparently, hate soccer because it's boring; it's because you have a visceral dislike for all things un-American.

Don't believe me? Take this passage from Andrew O'Hehir's article in Salon:

Don't get me wrong, soccer has arrived in the United States, or at least as much as it ever will under prevailing late-capitalist market conditions...

Sure, the sports-talk troglodytes who bash soccer haven't gone away, and some fans of the big four North American sports, especially if they're over 35 or so, still feel mysteriously emasculated by soccer's rising profile on the media landscape.

Or look at Dave Eggers' essay in Slate (which, by the way, is brilliantly written and entertaining):

The abandonment of soccer is attributable, in part, to the fact that people of influence in America long believed that soccer was the chosen sport of Communists. When I was 13—this was 1983, long before glasnost, let alone the fall of the wall—I had a gym teacher, who for now we'll call Moron McCheeby, who made a very compelling link between soccer and the architects of the Iron Curtain. I remember once asking him why there were no days of soccer in his gym units. His face darkened. He took me aside. He explained with quivering, barely mastered rage, that he preferred decent, honest American sports where you used your hands. Sports where one's hands were not used, he said, were commie sports played by Russians, Poles, Germans, and other commies. To use one's hands in sports was American, to use one's feet was the purview of the followers of Marx and Lenin. I believe McCheeby went on to lecture widely on the subject.

It was, by most accounts, 1986 when the residents of the United States became aware of the thing called the World Cup. Isolated reports came from foreign correspondents, and we were frightened by these reports, worried about domino effects, and wondered aloud if the trend was something we could stop by placing a certain number of military advisers in Cologne or Marseilles. Then, in 1990, we realized that the World Cup might happen every four years, with or without us....

Our continued indifference to the sport worshiped around the world can be easily explained in two parts. First, as a nation of loony but determined inventors, we prefer things we thought of ourselves. The most popular sports in America are those we conceived and developed on our own: football, baseball, basketball. If we can claim at least part of the credit for something, as with tennis or the radio, we are willing to be passively interested. But we did not invent soccer, and so we are suspicious of it.

Translation: "See? Soccer hatred is for jingoistic, neo-McCarthyite morons. Prepare to be assimilated, huckleberries." The only sports fans on a par with the soccer snobs are the women's sports snobs, who scream that you're a chauvinist Neanderthal if you don't care about the Washington Mystics or the Bay Area CyberRays.

Unfortunately, I don't fit the stereotype. I'm a cosmopolitan big-city guy, and at least as big a liberal internationalist as the next guy. I don't have a jingoistic bone in my body. I have no problem rooting for countries other than the US in the Olympics. I watched the World Baseball Classic with interest, even after the US was eliminated. "Proud to Be An American" makes my skin crawl. I happily voted for John Kerry, for God's sake.

I don't dislike soccer because I hate the rest of the world. I dislike it because it bores me to tears whenever I try to watch it.

A couple years ago, I went to a DC United game, largely to check out RFK in anticipation of baseball's return. I sat next to a section full of crazies who banged a drum all game, shouting undeniably clever if freequently obscene chants at the other team, and throwing toilet paper onto the field whenever United scored a goal. (Is it "United" or "the United"? I wouldn't want to offend Richard.) They were obviously quite dedicated fans, and quite fun to watch (even if I left the game with a throbbing headache). Unfortunately, they were infinitely more amusing than anything that happened on the field.

Tell you what, soccer snobs. I'll make you a deal. I will leave you alone to enjoy the World Cup, and I won't make any of my usual jokes about what a crashing bore your sport is. That is, if you promise to stop calling me a xenophobic idiot if I choose to ignore you and your sport. Thoughtful people can agree to disagree on their choice of sport, and it doesn't make anyone a bad person. Deal?

(Gee, does this mean I have to start respecting the intellect of football fans? Perish the thought...)

UPDATE: Bryan Curtis of Slate takes on the soccer snobs, in an article much like this post, only much, much better. Curtis takes on the question of why so many intellectuals become soccer snobs, and he makes the argument (rather compellingly) that soccer snobs are the baseball snobs of modern times. See, there's another reason to find baseball snobs less annoying... we're a dying breed, and thus are acquiring the benign dignity of a fading empire. Like most imperialists in the decline-and-fall phase, we can barely take ourselves seriously any more.

Posted by Mediocre Fred at June 9, 2006 06:29 AM | TrackBack

Bay Area CyberRays? What the hell sport is that?

Oh, and while I don't give a damn about the sport, I think the Euro-style team names like Real Salt Lake and Houston 1836 are completely cool.

Posted by: frinklin at June 10, 2006 12:26 AM

The Bay Area CyberRays were a team in the late and largely unlamented WUSA, the only women's soccer league ever to be named after a television channel. It's pretty much the only bit of data I retained from that league, as it is probably the worst team name in the history of organized sports (worse even than the "West Tenn Diamond Jaxx").

We will have to agree to disagree on Real Salt Lake, and on Houston "Celebrating Whitey's Big Mexican Beatdown" 1836.

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at June 12, 2006 05:31 AM

As much as I dislike soccer as a sport, I would be an instant fan if MLS changed Dynamo's name to 'Houston "Celebrating Whitey's Big Mexican Beatdown" 1836'.

It's like the Fighting Whities, only better.

Posted by: Papa Shaft at June 13, 2006 07:41 PM

Papa, I agree with you 100%. This is the sort of innovative thinking that MLS needs to get on a par with the WNBA, the National Lacrosse League, curling, and the NHL in this country.

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at June 15, 2006 11:30 AM
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